From Shannon Larratt’s Facebook page:
A friend’s gallery that included her photo got me interested in telling the story of “Olive Oatman”, a real woman who has become a part of American folk mythology due to the fact that she is said to have been abducted by Natives and forcibly tattooed, giving her the alleged title of “first woman tattooed in the US”. You can see it in these pictures of her.
In 1851, at the age of 14, she was traveling in part of a wagon trail with her Mormon family, and she and her younger sister Mary were captured during a massacre by a tribe believed to be the Yavapai people. The girls were initially terrified and mistreated (although never in an “unchaste manner” she emphasized), and acted as servants used to forage for food and do basic labor, being beaten regularly until they — quite quickly — learned the language. They were soon traded to the Mohave people, who treated her better, in part because they were more prosperous, and in part because the chief’s wife and daughter took the girls on as a project. In time they were given plots of land of their own to farm, and as was the tribe’s custom, were tattooed on their arms and chins. These were symbols of their femininity and marks of beauty, and not the marks of slaves, prisoners, or possessions as the legend often claims.
Margot Mifflin, who you may know as the author of the wonderful “Bodies of Subversion: A Secret History of Women and Tattoo”, wrote another book three years ago (2009) called “The Blue Tattoo: The Life of Olive Oatman”, in which she suggests that contrary to the legend of Olive and Mary being forcibly tattooed, the evidence suggests that the girls acclimated well and the tattoos were a voluntary decision on their part. It is quite likely that the forced tattoo narrative came later both to make it easier for her to be accepted by white culture when she later returned, and because such narratives were common in sideshow mythology. Olive herself spread the story when she gave lectures about her adventures, but this was most likely marketing and dramatic storytelling.
While the tribe was well off when Olive and Mary arrived, it fell on hard times and food shortage, and Mary Ann died about a year after getting her tattoo and no pictures of it exist. Nonetheless, Olive seemed happy with her new life and had a deep love for the Mohave people, and even though many opportunities for “escape” presented themselves (including a visit from 200 white men who came to trade and socialize with the tribe), she never took any steps to rejoin white society of her own volition. However, five years after being captured and assimilated, Olive was eventually returned to Fort Yuma at the age of 19 when word spread that she was being “held captive”, and she was greeted by a crowd of cheering people. Her story made headlines in the newspapers of the time and in addition to Margot Mifflin’s recent book, and 1857 biography became a best seller at the time. Olive died of natural causes at the age of 65 in 1903.